An aerial view of the new Altgeld Family Resource Center just outside the Altgeld Gardens public housing units Credit: courtesy KOO/Mike Schwartz

Drive south on the Bishop Ford Expressway to Altgeld Gardens and you’ll pass plenty of reminders you’re in a landscape not meant for inquisitive visitors. There are looming grain silos next to a parked shipping freighter, a village-scaled water reclamation plant, and plenty of anonymous warehouses. But once you pass 130th Street and drive into the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) largest surviving traditional public housing community, that spell breaks on approach to the new Altgeld Family Resource Center (FRC), a combined childcare center, community center, and Chicago Public Library. There, over a rising and falling roofline, neon-blue atriums slide in and out of view, beckoning with a playful game of peek-a-boo. The amoeba-shaped building’s curves are mirrored by Altgeld’s street plan, an oddity for grid-obsessed Chicago. Twenty miles from the Loop at the city’s southern tip, connected only by one bus route, its ring of curving and meandering streets give the feeling of a suburban subdivision, or maybe something else.

“One of the things that always struck me when I first came to Altgeld is that the layout is almost medieval, or quasi-suburban,” says Dan Rappel of KOO, the architecture firm that designed the FRC.

With more than 1,500 townhouse apartments over 157 acres, Altgeld was built in the mid-40s for returning Black WWII veterans, and was one of few places in Chicago they could live. It was meant to be self-contained and comprehensive, and included a library, schools, an auditorium, a clubhouse, and a shopping center.

If Altgeld ever functioned as an inward-facing medieval fortress, with residents nervously eyeing ramparts, there’s good reason. The existence of, and especially the integration of, Black public housing was continually threatened with violence from racist white people, who were rarely held accountable. And there’s an entire canon of urban planning that addresses notions of safety in public housing communities, where conventional (but incomplete) analyses have posited that high-rise towers, like the doomed Cabrini-Green projects, breed alienation and distrust by densely packing residents into common spaces and corridors. Meanwhile, low-rise projects like the still-surviving Altgeld Gardens are made functional and defensible by offering residents individuated dwellings.

Rappel says that he wanted to “subtly subvert” some of Altgeld’s inward-facing nature with the new building’s exuberance. But perhaps the most important factor determining Altgeld’s defensive posture is less rooted in the social dynamics of the place and more in the material conditions of the economy.

At Altgeld, the buildings are small but landscapes are vast. These are industrial tracts comprising landfill hills, factories, and refineries; infrastructural landscape behind fences and retaining walls, inaccessible and inhuman. Altgeld was alone on an industrial frontier. But these 50-some landfills and hundreds of industrial facilities spread beyond their borders via the water, soil, and air, and residents of Altgeld have suffered from cyanide-contaminated drinking water, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination, and 250 leaking underground storage tanks, and more, with some pollutants dating back to George Pullman’s railcar empire in the late 19th century.

The development could only have happened this way through a deadly mix of racist and classist paternalism and predation. In the 1970s, water left the faucets with a light brown hue. The community had the highest incidence of cancer in the entire city. In response, Altgeld’s Hazel Johnson created the People for Community Recovery (PCR) in 1979 to lobby for remediations that could clean up what became known as the “toxic doughnut.” (She got a bit of help from a young community organizer named Barack Obama, including a push to expand the neighborhood’s library.) Now known as the “mother of environmental justice,” a stretch of 130th Street has been named after her.

But despite PCR’s successes, Chicago’s industrial base shrank. Jobs left, the pollution stayed, and Altgeld continued to suffer. Residents experienced more crime and disorder as the population grew poorer, and several hundred units were torn down in 2016 and 2018. (Remaining units were renovated from 2004 to 2016.) The FRC won’t change this, and Altgeld’s history of layering quality architecture on top of and amidst a deplorable site illustrates how and why design’s agency to change the world for the better is limited by the same forces that built Altgeld on top of a toxic landfill. In a place where so much is owed—and at a time when COVID-19 and the uprisings against racist police violence have demonstrated just how unprepared and unwilling we are to care for the most vulnerable—the worlds of design, urban planning, and architecture have been consumed by the question of what their contribution to this struggle can be. The FRC and Altgeld is a story of ambition, uplift, complicity, and reconciliation, and in this complexity, it illustrates how far politics at the drafting desk can take you, and how far it can’t.

The design of Altgeld Gardens goes against the typical high-rise structure of public housing.Credit: Zach Mortice

For Black veterans returning from WWII, a chance to live at Altgeld Gardens was an Edenic dream deserving of its name. Long time residents tell stories of a neighborhood chorus, Halloween bonfires, and block clubs with enough kids to each field a baseball team.

Boxed out of expanding suburbs by racist lending practices and redlining during a historically tight housing market, Altgeld offered Black families subsidized housing in a tidy suburban atmosphere. Generous shared courtyards connected long, two-story apartment blocks with gabled roofs that could look quite a bit like single-family homes if you squinted. In J.S. Fuerst’s book When Public Housing Was Paradise: Building Community in Chicago, Claude Wyatt, a resident of Altgeld for ten years from the mid-40s to mid-50s, tells of the revelatory joy at not having “to go into a big building. I would put my key in the front door, go out through the back, come around to the front door again, and walk in and go through—again. I couldn’t believe it.” The development was far from the city center (residents would refer to the rest of Chicago as “the city”), but it was relatively close to the burgeoning industrial concerns of the southeast side. And because there were simply so few other places for Black people to live, there was little stigma attached to public housing.

Despite its failings, Altgeld’s design pedigree put residents on even footing with the burgeoning middle classes. Altgeld was designed by the Chicago architecture firm Naess and Murphy and built in 1945, and the development was joined by the Philip Murray Homes in 1954. Altgeld made historic preservation nonprofit Preservation Chicago’s 2017 most endangered list, and Executive Director Ward Miller says it should be considered for the National Register of Historic Places for three reasons. First, there’s the history of President Obama’s involvement there, and second, the history of the environmental justice movement, embodied in Hazel Johnson. But there’s also the architecture. Miller praises Altgeld’s quirky stepped parapets that frame its gabled roofs, and its intimate neighborliness. It “exudes a certain human scale,” he says. “It has a certain charm about it.”

Altgeld offered a quality of life that was “perhaps not too different from suburban developments happening at the same time,” says Miller. Unlike the maligned high-rises to come, it was “an attempt to connect people to the ground around them”; a dark irony, considering what was below the surface.

As one of Chicago’s first public housing developments, Altgeld is powerfully instructive of how progressive European ideas influencing American public housing were loosely adapted to the American real estate market and its unceasing devotion to the pastoral ideal embodied in the single-family home. Miller connects Altgeld’s plan to the legacy of Zeilenbau housing in Weimar Republic Germany. The Zeilenbau concept arranged linear social housing apartment blocks in parallel rows in green fields, to give poor people a reprieve from unsanitary slum shantytowns, granting access to light, fresh air, and outdoor space. There’s a loose chain of custody from the Weimar social democrats who advocated for this sort of housing, to Mies van der Rohe (who relocated much of European modern architecture and planning from Germany to Chicago after the former head of the Bauhaus set up shop at the Illinois Institute of Technology), and then to the prolific and well-connected Naess and Murphy. Architects like Mies arrived in Chicago when the Great Depression generated the political will to dramatically expand the public sector, and Miller says Altgeld is an echo of the ways Weimar-era socialists sought to “house the masses in a very affordable and economic way.”

But the Altgeld plan broke apartment complexes into smaller townhouse blocks of just a few units, wrapped them in between curving streets with few connections to main thoroughfares, and cleared out plenty of room for parking. The Zeilenbau concept was largely stripped of its social and political context by the 1940s, and adaptation to the American housing market entailed a move away from the communal ideal of socialist housing and toward the individual self-determination of single-family homes, which public sector austerity, more than moralistic design considerations forecloses as possibilities for public housing.

Altgeld’s details speak to a very American set of housing aspirations. Connected side by side and offset slightly, the small apartment blocks are interrupted by the quirkily stepped parapets that Miller admires, each one emphasizing a roof gable—the ultimate American symbol of single-family hearth and home—and popping up to remind people that public housing can trade in the same domestic signifiers that the private market does. It’s likely these details were applied to reinforce the dignity of the new residents. But considering what’s beneath the ground and in the air, it becomes a futile, superficial gesture, a nod to a suburban mirage of clean living and good health at odds with the way this place has poisoned the people with least freedom in where they lived.

From CHA’s perspective, Altgeld’s remoteness was attractive, as it would limit antagonism from white people, and would open up a new area of the city to Black families. The environmental racism evident at Altgeld was also willfully applied. The city opened up a municipal dump in the area in 1940, but allowed Altgeld to be built just a few years later. And CHA exacerbated problems by ignoring toxins leaching from a former waste dump, using asbestos, and dumping PCB waste at the site. It wasn’t till 1986 that Mayor Harold Washington banned future landfills there after an explosion of activism from PCR.

Inside the library in the FRCCredit: courtesy KOO/Mike Schwartz

The $22 million FRC is a building with no front or back, and its brick façade is conventionally contextual, matching the vast majority of buildings on site. The aluminum-clad blue atrium sections are a playful counterpoint, popping up over a community room, an indoor play area, and the library’s YouMedia music lab and recording studio. “We have a lot of up-and-coming rappers out here,” says Bernadette Williams, president of Altgeld Garden’s Local Advisory Council. Staggered window patterns on the library’s east face reinforce the sense of cheerfulness, but the FRC is never a domineering presence, and it resists any singular postcard profile.

Things are a bit grander on the inside, especially in the library, where the ceiling rises up from the entrance to a civic-scaled 28 feet, flaring the roofline up and down to alternately hide and reveal the atrium sections. Similarly, the largest community center meeting room and the indoor play area at the childcare center feature tall ceilings detailed with layers of sculptural geometry.

The amorphous shape of the building is felt most acutely in the childcare center, to be operated by Centers for New Horizons, where many of the 12 classrooms end in rounded edges. New Horizons has been in Altgeld for more than 20 years, and Christa Hamilton, its executive director, says that the greatest benefit of the new facility is that it will allow them to offer more capacity for kids aged six weeks to 24 months. “We’ve had generations of families come through our program at Altgeld,” she says.

“This is one of the only places we would be putting a childcare center,” says Ann McKenzie, the CHA’s chief development officer. “If we were on the north side, the childcare centers exist already.” It will also offer more space for wraparound social outreach services for both parents and kids, like counseling and after-school programming.

Some of the inward-facing spatial patterns at Altgeld are repeated at the FRC. There are two internal courtyards, including an outdoor playground, where a cruciform brick pattern on the walls references the Altgeld apartments’ signature stepped roof parapets. It’s a defensive measure that’s an echo of past trauma, and something the community wanted to keep their children protected. “[At] Altgeld, unfortunately the community violence is high,” says Hamilton. “The reality is that our children were not as safe as we would like them to be in an outdoor space.”

Cheryl Johnson, who took over her mother Hazel Johnson’s role at PCR after her death in 2011, says the childcare center is “beautiful” and agrees that the FRC is a vital resource. But she has a broader critique. What Altgeld needs is not so much new public amenities as a new economy. What does the city owe Altgeld, and does the FRC make up any of this gap? “We don’t even have a grocery store,” she says. “We don’t have a commercial strip.”

That wasn’t always the case. Next to the FRC is an largely abandoned purpose-built commercial building designed by Chicago modernist architecture firm Keck and Keck. And its sweeping curvilinear profile—an inspiration for Rappel’s design for the FRC—once contained a co-op grocery store, though it’s been disused and mostly empty for years now; the object of Preservation Chicago’s advocacy efforts. Additional commercial spaces were part of a CHA master plan that KOO worked on in 2013 with Johnson and Williams, but commercial elements didn’t make the cut, and CHA isn’t making retail a high priority at Altgeld. “CHA funding for non-housing related purchases is extremely limited and a commercial building does not fit within our mission,” says McKenzie. When Mayor Lori Lightfoot visited the FRC earlier this month, and was asked by activists if a grocery store could be brought back to Altgeld, she fled the scene.

Johnson was involved early on in the effort to plan the FRC, but says she never got a satisfactory picture of how it would be used. She wanted more space for PCR, to do trainings on emergency preparedness, mold remediation, and more.

And then there’s the catch-22 common to public engagement in all low-income communities. To design successful projects that serve residents’ needs, administrators, planners, and architects need a deep and time-intensive public engagement process, but no one’s time is more expensive than the poor. “Everybody that’s working on these developments in our community, they aren’t being compensated to do this work,” says Johnson. “We don’t have the luxury to be able to volunteer because we lack job opportunities. People are struggling.” Without this level of engagement, it’s harder to build successful infrastructure that could be the kind of boon to economic prospects residents need to have more time to volunteer. “I think we were kind of used, just to justify that they had resident engagement,” she says.

These shortfalls of the design process and the systemic impediments to health and equity on 130th Street make it clear that the FRC, or any set of buildings, is not the answer to what the community needs. “There’s no way it can reverse 70 years of racism and bad policy, but hopefully it can support small ‘d’ democratic change,” says Rappel. If anything, the FRC’s potential lies in its ability to be a forum for community organizing, a place to assign door-knocking rolls and cyberbully the mayor while someone you trust watches your kids. “In whatever way this building can be supportive of the community and their needs, that would be success,” he says.

Johnson sees this potential, but during a pandemic, acknowledges that the efficacy of any sort of community forum is “all speculative.” For example, while the library is now open, the childcare center won’t admit kids until June.

This appraisal of the FRC’s real utility is one part of a wider disciplinary argument within design. It’s based on the dawning recognition that the design and architecture industry, despite Solomonic rhetoric about how visionaries use architecture to make the world a kinder, gentler, more equitable place, are really just handmaidens of capital, and are complacent enough to do its bidding. Like, for example, building housing for a near-captive population on land degraded by industries granted the freedom to pursue profit at the cost of public health, and getting cover from the public agencies that manage it. The domestic detailing and the public outdoor space at Altgeld might have been enough to convince designers themselves they were on the right side of history, but underlying (and underground) structures have disabused us of this idea. Good politics, if it happens in a design studio, works to subvert these systems. More importantly, designers have to get involved as political actors alongside the people they build for, to make sure they get the opportunity to create places that soar anywhere near the heights of their rhetoric.

Designers hitching their star to Altgeld’s horizon-setting activism is a smart play. In addition to being a fundamental origin point for the environmental justice movement, the community has been pushing for a new library since at least 2009, when a flood rendered their old library unusable. Altgeld youth and Johnson showed up at Mayor Daley’s office to demand to use his Internet to complete their college applications.

And Johnson has another idea of what architecture could do for Altgeld, one that’s much more experimental and potentially transformative. Altgeld, she says, needs a place to study how environmental degradation affected the community, so that it never happens again. “It’s an open environmental lab,” she says. “It could be a new way of introducing science to our community. It’s so big of a missed opportunity.” Johnson says she doesn’t think that the CHA would be supportive. Done correctly, with true community control, such a lab would be a place founded to document generations of institutional failure.

“We’re always dealing with the sins of the past,” says McKenzie. Her response to the idea of an environmental lab is diplomatic, if not clinical: “We will continue to look to the Altgeld community for guidance in future endeavors. We appreciate opportunities for CHA residents and environmental education, especially [ones] that might lead to careers.”

A facility that teaches environmental science to a community that’s been victimized by environmental racism is a powerful narrative of self-determination and a fantastic prompt for architecture. It would also be a political fight to establish. For their own disciplinary horizons, and, more importantly, to help Altgeld claw back what it’s been deprived of, it’s the type of fight designers should line up for.   v